My brothers and sisters are always falling apart. They peel at their seams, are always needing more of my love, which keeps them alive. Once, my father said my kisses are made of magic—that they hold the sutures together—but I don’t know what to believe any more. I loop sutures through my siblings’ seams, silence the openings. I deploy a thousand kisses a day, just to be sure.
One day or another my sister Percy needs her eagle’s talons clipped, so I pin her down on the roughed-up hardwood and start in with the garden shears. Her housecat body worms underneath me.
Percy says, Considering that our father the taxidermist appropriated these talons for the express purpose of protecting both myself and you, Beech, I find this process exceptionally cruel.
Percy speaks to me not in words but her own catlike mumbles and purrs. My father once said he made my ears different so that I could understand those I’m supposed to care for. I fail Percy, sluicing into her cuticle, sending her scurrying into my father’s empty room via the animal door. I think to go after her but remember his words: I’m not allowed. Only the other children are. Percy leaves behind bloody footprints, curved trails like an armada of commas.
The UPS man’s truck comes rolling down the driveway and I shoo away my sister Persephone the anaconda, who barks through the casement windows. She has a Golden Retriever’s head to make her more palatable, but after the UPS man confessed his fear of snakes I keep her hidden. I don’t want him to see her ten-foot body, imagine the strength of her coiled grip. He is unloading a car-sized crate and I stare for a while at the spoon of his calves before going outside.
With the crate open the UPS man is staring at a tiny donkey, small enough it would fit into my palm.
The strangest one yet, he says. Whenever I look at him I feel like his age is different: last time he was twenty, today, he is twenty-two, six years older than me.
Tied to the tiny donkey’s ear like a price tag is a piece of paper bearing my father’s handwriting: My loveliest Beech, you perfect accumulation of DNA, you perfect species of Beech-icity, my precious Beechius beautisis, beware (!!!) of this tiny donkey, which I have named Boomer, for it has been outfitted with fangs and the poison glands from a boomslang (Dispholidus typus)! A very potent toxin indeed. And I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you, my star, my treasure. With delight, your father the taxidermist.
You should probably step back, I say to the UPS man.
He obliges; he has always obliged me.
I say hello to Boomer but her braying makes no sense to me. A stumble of syllables. She turns away from us and ambles toward the house, her four legs blurring along the way.
The UPS man straightens his brown shorts and says, That’s a nice dress you’re wearing.
I’ve been wearing it for a week: a white thing with a pattern kind of like flowers, but not. It’s all stained up and covered in dirt and maybe that’s a spatter of blood on the skirt.
I say, You’re supposed to be here on business.
He is smiling and it has been a long time since I’ve seen a person with a face that smiles. I’m looking at his ankles, too, searching for his seams, the places where he could come apart. He says, Let’s just say that the more I come here, the more I’m looking for reasons to get stitches.
As the UPS man leaves I blow Boomer a kiss but it gets carried away by the wind, all mixed up in the truck’s exhaust. How ugly it becomes. I wish I had the heart to kill it, my own pale love.
Later, I gather up all the children and tie black ribbons to their bodies: a symbol of mourning over our mother, who fell apart long ago because I forgot to love her. The ribbons are useful for my siblings who have no method of producing tears. I take a picture holding my phone at arm’s length, my siblings gathered up around me at the front of the house. When I send it to my father, my phone makes a swooshing sound that satisfies me.
I clutch the phone all night, let its vague light guide my footsteps over the separating floorboards. I wait for his response. I wish for only a veneer of his voice: a little text would do. All the responsibility he’s leveraged on me aside, I miss the sound of his smiling.
I go to high school one day a week, just enough to make sure the state thinks my failures are my fault and not my father’s. I take a ride atop my brother Whitehouse III, who has the body of a horse and the maw of a lion to protect himself—a common theme in my father’s work.
You look particularly elegant today, I say, kissing the top of his head, moving my hands from his lion’s mane to the seam along his neck. My father’s old sutures.
Whitehouse III whinnies: I must disagree, because you, Beech, my lovely sister, look far more beautiful than I could ever hope to aspire to; your beauty is opalescent; your beauty sustains hope; you are the vivacity that gives this world meaning.
Well, aren’t you my new favorite brother, I say. I do blush.
I tell Whitehouse III to hide in the forest and wait. While I walk the rest of the way I know I’m being watched—patchwork clothes I make myself, dirtied knees, my wild hair. My father outlawed mirrors, thinking his children would be horrified by their own made-up faces, so there’s no restraint to my fashion.
I stay for biology, the only class I understand. There happens to be an exam today and even though I won’t be around to get my answers back, I know they’re all correct. There was one question about the human heart and even though I’ve checked a thousand times, I still stop in the bathroom to hold my dress up around my shoulders, look at myself in the mirror. A clutch of girls opens the door and gapes, stifling their laughter.
Look, it’s the girl who was raised by wolves, one says.
Wolves gone wild, says another.
Hey, what does a wolf tit taste like, a boy walking past the open door says, and he’s slapped in the arm.
The slapper says, Christ, I just meant that she’s really poor.
Even with observers I don’t hide myself—I still need to search again, scan my belly for stitches, even if I only keep finding this simple ribcage of mine. After that I go to the library, ask the librarian for books about girls who are raised by wolves. She doesn’t even look up from behind her glasses, just says, Oh, honey.
When I go back to the forest Whitehouse III is gone, so I walk all the way home by myself, tapping away at my phone, sending out missives into the wider world. Sometimes I think about hacking off my arms and putting on wings, I write, hit the send button and imagine it appearing in an online feed alongside pictures of newborns, announcements of newborn love. To the image of my naked body I attach, Does this look like a woman or something else completely? I put my ear close to the screen and listen for answers that never come.
In the backyard I find my sister Grace, dead. How, I don’t know. I pick up her pieces—the body of a hedgehog, a pair of gills to help her breathe underwater, the webbed feet of a duckling—and take them into the woods, dig a grave for every species. I sweat through my dress and try not to cry; I take a photograph of the grave and send it to my father along with the message: I don’t know what happened, I’m sorry.
He doesn’t reply, but I know the language he would use if he were to bother: rip :’(
Another day I find my brother Marbles circling a tree in the woods like he’s unsure about the way inside. When he sees me, he comes running on his coyote’s legs, brushes up against my leg with his beaver softness. Together we sit, and I run my fingers along his seems, find that he too is falling apart little by little.
You’re a good boy, I say.
When I take my needle to his beaver skin, he doesn’t flinch. He says, You are everything to me Beech, everything really completely.
Is your tooth doing okay?
It’s okay because sometimes I go chew on the trees way out in the woods so that when Papa comes home maybe he will see that I chewed the ones way far away and not the ones right near the house.
I say, That’s good, Marbles. That’s smart.
Sometimes I take the trees I chew down and chew them into the shape of what I think Papa maybe looks like and that makes me happy for a little while because I pretend that the wood is actually him and that he is maybe looking at me and maybe loves me.
He does love you, Marbles, I say. I know so.
Being loved is something I like maybe as much as chewing, Marbles squeaks. I kiss his new sutures and he goes off to live out another day of his life: being a strangeness that shouldn’t exist. I think maybe I’m more like him than any human.
Later, the UPS man brings a box filled with letters. I let him inside and offer him a beer even though I know he won’t drink it. He drinks it.
The first letter from my father says he will be returning home sooner than later.
The second says he has figured out a method of replicating his creations, but that it’s dangerous yet, and to not get my hopes up.
The third says I should sell the house and ask the UPS man how much it would cost to ship all my siblings to the Ukraine.
The fourth asks me to think about what pieces of another I would want the most.
The fifth says to strike everything from the record.
The sixth is a litany of ways of saying sorry.
The seventh says that he has made some terrible mistakes but that I still have a choice, that I don’t have to be alone.
The UPS man puts a hand on my shoulder and I wish I had a ribbon to wear this sadness instead of the crying I give to the room.
I got this at the loading dock, the UPS man says, showing me his forearm, this long deep gouge in his skin running along the tender inside.
Did you get it or did you do it, I ask, but I don’t care about the answer.
My lips on his sutures, it feels like something I’ve been meant to do. He closes his eyes and rumbles. He takes my hand for a long time and finishes his beer, writes his phone number on the back of the seventh letter; when he finally does leave, he does so dodging Boomer, who circles the front yard, venom dripping, killing the grass as she goes.
She hee-haws but her meaning is black static—when I sit down in the grass nearby, she turns her head to glare in my general direction. I try what I know of Spanish, and then some sign language, hoping it’s just a language barrier I need to navigate. I try body language—I bow on my knees, trying to show a tendency toward play.
I see my sister Paris Lee come around from the back of the house and I wave—she is one of my favorites, with her toad body and small deer-pelt jacket. A small beak on her chin helps her crack through the ice that spiders across the pond every winter. When Boomer turns in her direction she scatters.
From there in the grass I message my father about Boomer’s other language, or my unlearning—Dad, what’s happening? Please, I don’t understand any of this, I need you—but receive back only one response again and again: Your message failed to deliver.
Whitehouse III is out in the forest wandering; I call his name and he ignores me for a long time. When I step up alongside him and touch his flank he whips around and roars in my direction. Some of his spit gets in my mouth.
A moment later he is catching himself, apologizing. Beech, my beautiful sister, I pray that you might take my most sincere apologies to heart; my apologies are bountiful like the hairs on my mane. I will let you take all the hairs if that means you will forgive me, you can make them into a pillow, or eat them, whatever your desires.
Keep your mane, I say. I just want to know why you left me.
Whitehouse nuzzles my shoulder, my bizarre hair. He whinnies, All I want is to protect you, and I am so sorry, but she is changing us. The donkey. She says she’s our father’s true advocate; that she will take better care of us than you, the way you are. She says that father says we’re not like you. I’m sorry, I love you, I love you Beech.
As we walk home together he continues apologizing and after a while his words turn to gibberish. I don’t have the heart to stop him, I love the sound of his not-speaking so, so much.
I email my father again and again that night. I tell him I’m the one falling apart. I’m starting to understand he’s not listening.
Later, or far later, I wake on the floor of my room, my head atop a pile of clothes. My bed is filled with sleeping siblings. Boomer is standing a foot away and seems to be eyeballing measurements: my body against the pelt of a panda. I escape out my open window with Boomer’s empty vocabulary filling my ears. Out there I find Paris Lee with her sutures falling apart, drooling exudate.
Hey, come here, I say.
She croaks in an inappropriate way.
Paris Lee, don’t you speak to me like that.
She croaks and her little beak falls off, rolls into the pond. I want to search for it but I hear a tree falling in the front yard. Fracture of branches, dried-out leaves go scattering. I run around to the front and see Marbles standing near the stump, the telltale shape of his chewing.
Marbles, what are you doing?
I decided that maybe I wanted to chew on this tree because it’s a really nice tree for chewing I thought and maybe it would be fun and when Papa comes home I could show him how good I am and maybe he would tell me he loves me and maybe kiss me and I think it’s not fair that you are the one to make all the decisions.
I’m just trying to take care of you, I say.
Maybe your taking care makes me feel hollow and maybe like I am worth nothing at all, Marbles says as he approaches.
You’re worth everything to me.
Marbles turns to Boomer, who bleats in his direction for a while before he starts speaking again: Beech maybe it’s time to think that you could be something better maybe like me or Whitehouse III and just think about all the good times we could have with Papa when we go to Ukraine like Boomer said we could.
Marbles, come here, I say. I love you.
His eyes are moving between Boomer and me as she continues bleating.
Marbles, don’t listen to her, I say.
But Beech sometimes it’s hard to hear what you’re saying and maybe it would be easier to do what Boomer wants and give yourself a new mouth or skin because I would be so sad if we went away without you.
Boomer and I are staring each other down now. I tell her, No, I won’t be told what to do. I tell her, I could still love you if you stop all this already. I say, You’re my sister.
Her bleats have turned to growls and her eyes are black burls of smoke. I reach down to touch Marbles, let him know everything will be okay: my lips are ready to give him kisses. He turns back to Boomer once more and he is all at once pouncing, bucktooth bared, coyote’s claws scratching at my face and my body, and I don’t have the heart to fight him back. He is trying to end my throat with his tooth and he only leaves when Persephone slithers outside and starts to bark at the commotion without taking a side: Hey hey hey hey.
I take a picture of my battered body and my bleeding places and I put them online. The last is of my face and my scratches and my black eye—I wait to collect digital stars from sympathetic strangers but my phone stays quiet. I text one picture to the UPS man with the number he gave me and he shows up twenty minutes later in his own car but still wearing his uniform. We take refuge inside and my siblings watch us through the windows, some standing on the backs of others.
I kiss his still-healing stitches and he in turn kisses the fresher scars on my face. I ask him to never stop speaking and so he doesn’t: he tells me about the motion of the distribution center, the vignettes of lives he sees while receiving signatures, the places we could go if only we crammed our bodies into boxes and were already dead.
All I have is the language of this one person. The UPS man carries himself like a promise: bound up in tape to be disappeared. And I am riding in the palms of his giving hands.
Is there anything I can do to help, he asks.
Cut yourself, I say, handing him my knife.
And he does. And I seal it away again. In that way he becomes mine, and me his.
Before he never left that day, he died. Before that, he peeled away my dress and we searched each other for things we didn’t have dictionaries for. When he died, he was seizing from a dose of boomslang venom.
In the moment of his dying he couldn’t speak, but I could still understand him. My siblings stood in a circle around us, Marbles and Whitehouse III and all the rest, and I knew of all things that are my fault, this is not. This is hers, the boomslang venom.
What he did not speak was: I never got to tell you my name.
I carried his body into the bathtub, kept it on ice.
And now I break all the codes and call my father the taxidermist. Between rings I think about things I’ve never done. The UPS man is alabaster among the porcelain. His veins protrude a gentle blue.
I know what’s to come if I don’t formulate a wartime stratagem: the tiny donkey will finish her coup and keep my siblings away from my healing needle. Whitehouse III’s head will fall off and I’ll find Marbles’ drowned body by the side of the pond, his four legs across the way.
Maybe my kisses aren’t magic after all. The phone keeps ringing.
In the kitchen there is a knife and I have my own needle, my own thread. Ring ring. I could put the heart of a hyena inside him, replace his tissue-lost feet with those of a black bear. I could keep his calves. But would he speak to me then, would I understand his speaking?
Ring ring. I look into the chest freezers at all the pieces my father sent me without instruction or purpose. I wonder if he meant for me to use them on myself. My humanness has kept my siblings alive but my humanness keeps our love incomplete. My fingers touch these pieces: snout of a boar, wings of an eagle, tail of a porpoise. At the bottom, the pelt of a panda.
The phone keeps on ringing, and I keep on waiting, hoping he will answer, tell me secrets of going to war but also about keeping one’s heart at home. Of whether he is my enemy, or she, or me. None of it has ever made any sense. Ring ring. Maybe he will tell me the reason behind a thing like me.
And then a click, and a hum, and a silence that goes on and on. The sound of breathing, deep, like that of an animal.
Joel Hans is the managing editor of Fairy Tale Review, and his fiction has been published in Caketrain, West Branch, Redivider, Yemassee, Booth, and others. He received his MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona. Find him online at joelhans.com.